One of the truly outstanding public servants readies for retirement

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 27, 2012

“In a public-service career spanning more than 40 years, Richard Dicerni has seen it all. He has served five of the last seven prime ministers, from a minister’s staff under Pierre Trudeau to deputy minister of Industry under Stephen Harper, a role he’s played for the last six years.

He also spent more than a decade in Ontario, first as deputy minister of environment and energy under Bob Rae’s NDP government, then as deputy of education, post-secondary education and intergovernmental affairs in the Mike Harris Conservative government and later as CEO of Ontario Power Generation, the provincial electrical utility.

In all of these roles, Dicerni has expressed great pride in the loyalty of the public service to the government of the day. As he put it in an appearance before the Industry, Science and Technology Parliamentary Committee last week: “There is one characteristic that is common to all deputy ministers: we are serially monogamous in our loyalty to the government of the day.” It was his 27th and final appearance before the committee ahead of his retirement, which, at 63, he has announced for the end of July. One of the truly outstanding public servants of his generation is leaving an exceptional legacy of service.

As the 31-year-old head of the Canadian Unity Information Office during the 1980 Quebec referendum, Dicerni ran a federal propaganda machine outside the auspices of the official No committee. He was the invisible hand, the unsung hero of the federalist forces and their 60-40 victory. The leader of the No forces, Claude Ryan, had decreed his side would do no polling. Dicerni simply gave all the federal polls to the No campaign without Ryan’s knowledge.

By the time of the second Quebec referendum in October 1995, Dicerni was working with new Ontario premier Mike Harris. In 1995, the siren song of sovereignty messenger Lucien Bouchard was “le partenariat,” a partnership with the rest of Canada, starting with Ontario.

Dicerni brought me in to work with him on Harris’s important speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto. He needed to make the point that while the two provinces were already joined by geography and economics, Ontario had no interest in a partnership with a separate Quebec. And he needed to say so in clear but courteous terms.

Harris had perfect pitch that day: “Ontario’s answer is a friendly but firm, ‘Non, merci!’ ” The speech had an echo effect where it was needed most – Quebec. In a referendum where the margin of victory was slim – 50.6 per cent for the No side vs. 49.4 per cent for the Yes – the contribution by Harris and his deputy minister was important.

“He worked very hard on that speech,” Dicerni recalls today. “He had me over to his home and went over the speech line by line.” But Harris also thought it was important to patch things up with Quebec, and so they flew to Quebec City for a meeting with Bouchard, by then premier.

“They talked about their kids,” Dicerni remembers, “and they had a lot in common, being from small towns.” Harris noted that Bouchard had greeted Dicerni by his first name, as had Jean Chrétien in a meeting with the prime minister. Dicerni had worked for Bouchard when he was secretary of state, and for Chrétien when he had oversight of the 1980 referendum.

When Dicerni first went to work on Parliament Hill as a 20-year-old staffer in 1969, they were still using rotary phones. The first cellphones, the size of shoeboxes, wouldn’t be in use until the late-1980s, and smartphones would be an invention of the new century. Twenty years ago, the Internet was in its infancy, long before the explosion of web platforms such as Twitter.

All this technology and innovation is what makes the Industry Department important. The files are complex, and the stakes incredibly high. The wireless telecom space is just one example. If there’s a ministry that’s about the economy and the future, it’s Industry. Canada’s $12-billion share of the $60-billion 2009 North American auto bailout was a file managed by Dicerni and Industry officials.

Without the bailout, he says, “the auto sector would have suffered the same catastrophic fate as the financial-services sector in the U.S.” Three years later, the loans have been paid back, and the auto industry is thriving.

In six years since his return to Ottawa, Dicerni has worked with four senior ministers and several more junior ones. He’s much too discreet to rate them, but does not disagree that Jim Prentice was the best.

Prentice, now vice-chair of CIBC, equally feels he worked with the best. “It was one of the finest partnerships I ever had,” Prentice says. “He’s had a remarkable career, and quite simply in six years has built Industry into a strong department.”

But Prentice remembers Dicerni most fondly for a personal intervention. He was in New Orleans with Harper for a trilateral summit of the three amigos – Canada, the U.S. and Mexico – when he learned his daughter had been rushed to hospital in Chicago.

“I’ve got you booked on the next flight to Chicago,” Dicerni told him. “The PM has many ministers, but your daughter has only one father.”

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